Profiling KOLs: speed, frequency, and reach of impact

Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) play an important role in disseminating scientific knowledge in the medical community. Medical Affairs professionals may rely on informal methods, like word-of-mouth, to identify KOLs, but such methods lack precision and can miss emerging up-and-comers. There are better ways to identify KOLs based on the speed at which they disseminate new knowledge, the frequency of their publications and presentations, and the extent of the reach of their work within the medical community.

Advances in technology along with the increasing size and scope of medical literature databases allow for more structured approaches to understanding KOLs. Text-mining and bibliometric techniques enable Medical Affairs professionals to analyze the content of publications, the impact of presentations, and the network of co-authors. Using these techniques, they can create detailed profiles of a KOL’s areas of expertise, relationships with other KOLs, and scientific topics of most interest to them.

Peer-reviewed journals are no longer the only game in town

Medical professionals have long published in peer-reviewed journals. These publications are considered the gold standard for disseminating knowledge. Readers understand that papers published in these journals have been evaluated and critiqued by other experts in the field. Many papers are revised based on reviewer suggestions. Even more still never make it to publication because they do not meet the journal’s standards for important, novel findings.

A drawback of peer-reviewed journals is that the review process can require months to complete. Papers describing the findings of an experiment or clinical study may not be published in a journal until months after the research is finished. Medical conferences complement peer-reviewed publications and provide a faster path to disseminating knowledge.

KOLs publish in peer-reviewed journals and conferences to disseminate knowledge, but they also author patents, grants and treatment guidelines, not to mention work in clinical trials. When considering the reach and impact of a KOL, it is possible to factor in all of these to draw a complete picture of expertise.

 Professional network analysis

Medical research is often a collaborative effort. Physicians conduct studies with colleagues in their field as well as professionals in related fields. For example, a cardiologist might work with a geneticist and a pathologist in a study of early-onset atherosclerosis as well as other cardiologists. Teams of researchers like these share ideas, speculations, and hypothesis as they conduct their research and adapt to unanticipated findings along the way. These collaborators can then go on to work on other research efforts with other colleagues. When that happens, they may bring with them the ideas that influenced their prior research. This kind of collaboration forms professional networks among researchers and helps ideas spread among community members.

Medical Affairs professionals can take advantage of network analysis techniques to understand how researchers fit into the broad network of medical researchers by analyzing relations among co-authors on publications.

An important concept in a professional network analysis is the hub. A hub node in a network is relatively highly interconnected with other nodes. In a co-author network, a hub would represent an author who has published with many other authors. These researchers are potential KOLs because they have established relationships with many others in the field.

Another important type of network node is a bridge node, or one that connects two or more groups within a social network. There are sometimes researchers who span multiple domains. For example, a geneticist may collaborate with cardiologists on some research projects and with immunologists on other types of research. Such a person can act as a bridge between the two research communities and help to disseminate knowledge of immunology within the cardiology community and vice versa. A KOL who spans multiple domains may be of particular interest to Medical Affairs professionals working in areas that span medical specialties.

KOLs reach and influence others in the medical community. They do this through a combination of peer-reviewed publications, conference presentations, and collaboration across professional networks. Taking all three of these factors into account can help Medical Affairs professionals identify KOLs more effectively.